Gold Winging: Learning to Love the Dainty Elephant
By Sean Smith
We look cold. We look happy. This is a real nice motorcycle we're riding. What our family doesn't see since we arrive in the dark are the caked on bugs in the fairings, windscreen and crash bars, along with nearly 1,500 miles worth of road grime. The 2012 Honda Goldwing may cost $27,000 and have heated seats, but this is no luxury vehicle that you have to pamper. In fact, it excels at making motorcycling enjoyable in the least enjoyable motorcycling conditions. A few days of navigating rainy Portland streets and muddy, gravel driveways are about to prove just that.
This is Part 2 of Ashlee and Sean's Goldwing tour series. Read Part 1 here.
ashlee goodwin I mentioned before that my dad had a Honda Silverwing when I was growing up. When he bought that bike my dear grandmother threw a temper tantrum the likes of one you didn't think a 65 year old woman could muster and then refused to speak to my father for 6 entire weeks. She was concerned, my mom later explained, that he bought this motorcycle so he could get ladies on the side (which I'm sure a Silverwing would really help with). Also, you see, she seemed to believe he was going to kill himself on this motorcycle. She has a bit of an overactive imagination when it comes to impending doom, so I don't tell her much about my motorcycle riding ways. But seeing as how these two wheels are our way to Oregon and back, I don't have much choice but to roll into their place sitting on the Goldwing. As we head into my grandparent's driveway, this is all I'm thinking about.
sean smith Ashlee's dad, as a former motorcycle owner, expresses concern about where I'm going to be storing the bike during our stay. He asks a lot of questions. What if it gets stolen? What if it gets rained on? What if it falls over in the gravel driveway while it's parked? What if tree sap drops on it? I scrunch my face and retort, "This is a vehicle. It can stay outside." I do think it's cruel to leave your motorcycles out in the cold and elements, but seriously? The bike is dirty. It's going to continue to be dirty. It can survive a few nights out in the cold and rain. And it does. The Goldwing isn't meant to come out in the summer and immediately go back in a garage as soon as the temperature drops below 60 degrees and the rain comes out.
ag My dad's questions don't surprise me as much as they shock Sean. This is just how I grew up with motorcycles—stored safely in the garage until August when I watched my dad ride off (often in shorts—gah!), and I'd beg to jump on the back for a few fun minutes on the way to the market or around town. The helmets we wore were old. The gear? Long sleeves and long pants mandatory, that's all. Turns out my grandmother probably should have been concerned. I'm telling you this because it's the only way to accurately make you understand the mystified look on my brother Jeff's face as he takes stock of piece after piece of riding gear that Sean and I pull off and throw aside in the living room.
ss Jeff doesn't have friends with fast cars and fast bikes. He doesn't own a fast car. While he's played around with motorcycles and been exposed to them, he's never experienced what motorcycles are truly capable of. With that in mind, I have him suit up in head to toe riding gear and throw him on the back of the Goldwing. While Jeff is on the bike, I push to the envelope of its speed, lean angle, acceleration and braking power for nearly 15 minutes at a level of riding which I do not usually engage in except for on a race track. Why expose myself as the aggressive street racing and sometimes reckless rider that I truly am? Well it's because I have a point to make: this kind of riding is very special, and unless you're capable of doing it yourself, it's all but impossible to convey to people who have not experienced just what that is like.
ag It's a thing I'm grateful to know well—how a motorcycle feels when being used to its fullest performance capacity, even though my skillset can't really make the same thing happen yet. I learned how amazing motorbikes are long before I learned how to pilot them. The boys come back in the door, faces ruddy from riding in the cold, and plastered with the types of silly stupid happy expressions you can only hope the people you love have all the time.
ss Have you ever watched Randy Mamola take someone around a racetrack on the two seater Ducati GP bike? Randy is a world champion motorcycle racer and easily one of the greatest riders that's ever lived. Still, even on a purpose built, high performance, two seat motorcycle he has serious reservations about pushing it to the limit with an inexperienced passenger who he has never ridden with and may or may not trust. I'm sure many of his passengers feel like they're on their ride of their life and that the bike couldn't possibly be pushed harder, but I know that's not true because I've seen how much faster he goes when he has someone like Eric Bostrom on the back. It's hard to show what a motorcycle can do when you're riding a sportsbike with an inexperienced passenger.
ag This is another way that the Goldwing is unique among motorcycles: the combination of sporting performance, speed and comfortable, secure passenger accommodations makes it an ideal bike for giving others the experience of real speed on a motorbike.
ss The fact that it isn't nearly as quick as a sportsbike and doesn't lean over as far is irrelevant. I use full throttle from as early in the corner as I can all the way until I absolutely have to get on the brakes for the next corner. I turn in as hard as possible and scrape the pegs, then hustle the bike around what looks to be the proper racing line. Back on the gas and then I brake again for the next turn. This is more important than overall speed. This the feeling of the bike being pushed to the limit. This is what counts. Who knew a 938 lb touring motorcycle is an ideal tool for helping people understand why some of us are so passionate about racing and riding sport motorcycles? (If this is something you, too, think about I'd recommend this book.)
ag Fast motorbikes restore my faith in humanity a little bit. That there are giant corporations (as much as I may grumble about them) who hire engineers that think night and day about building a faster and better motorcycle, and that there are those few among us who have crafted the skills needed to exhaust the potential of such a machine is a truly inspiring thing.
ss This is also why MotoGP racing is so important, even if it is, sometimes, not the most interesting thing to watch. The world's best engineers and riders push bikes to their limits and capture valuable data, and all of us benefit from their work. Racing delivers the environment for testing that consistently helps develop technology, whether it's advanced traction control systems or specially designed Bridgestone Goldwing tires. Everyone who rides a motorcycle that has even the smallest amount of sporting DNA benefits from world championship prototype racing. Honda's RC212V absolutely dominated at the highest level of motorcycle racing in 2011. I've heard people lament that Honda has lost their way, but when it comes to performance Honda is on their game. It's no coincidence that the Goldwing is so amazingly good.
ag The motorcycle world is a very small place. Regardless of how popular racing is or how many motorcycles are sold or how many readers motorcycle publications have, comparitively speaking, this is a small club we're in. And the people that work within the motorbike industry is an even smaller club. From the outside looking in, this may not be obvious, but the second you become involved in the motorcycle industry you start to understand that everyone knows everyone else. The internet makes our small club even smaller. Say, maybe the size of a highschool—one that's spread out all over the country.
ss The internet introduced me to Wes and Grant, and got me a gig writing for Hell for Leather. I met Ashlee on the internet. I make a lot of friends on the internet. Alicia Mariah Elfving (Motolady) is one of those internet friends. Since I was in Portland, where she lives, I was excited to meet her and check out MotoCorsa, where she works. It turns out Portland's Ducati dealership is really, really nice. Pro Italia and Santa Barbara Ducati won't like hearing this, but MotoCorsa is the nicest Duc shop I've ever been to. Physically, it is absolutely enormous, but it doesn't feel like a warehouse with motorcycles parked inside. Instead it's more like a fantasy Ferrari dealership where there's actually a remote chance of someday owning the vehicles they're selling, making it all that much better. They've stocked Ducati's entire line and quite a few Aprilias including a street legal RS250. I see an MV Augusta F4 under lights, posed by itself in a room with racing memorabila. Badass. There's a good selection of gear, and a poster on the wall advocating the use of proper motorcycle gear. More than the usual Dainese and Ducati branded wares, they also have Puma boots and Rev'it's full line. If you live in Portland and haven't been there, go check it out.
ag The only travel arrangement I made in advance was a booking at Portland's Jupiter Hotel for the night of the Journey concert. We asked Grant what the coolest hotel in Portland was, and he didn't hesitate before recommending the Jupiter. Just like when he looked at me with a little smile as I'm disdainfully explaining I'm not fan of the Goldwing so far around LA, and says that the next time he sees me I'm going to be in love with being a passenger on this bike, he was right. The folks at the hotel are nice enough to let us park the bike right next to the stairs to our room (next to a no bikes sign no less), but not nice enough to let me in the bar without my ID (which, have I mentioned, I left at home in the pocket of my leather A-stars jacket that wouldn't fit in the bike?) The bed side table has The Four Agreements (which you should read if you haven't) instead of a Bible, and the outside of the door is a full sized chalkboard where you can write messages to other guests. This place is actually pretty affordable, too.
ss It's no secret that I'm an HFL fanboy. Like a high schooler who sketches his favorite band logos all over his desk, when I realize that the Jupiter has chalkboard doors, I have to bust out the sheep's skull.
ag We're on a journey to see Journey which is so meta it makes me feel a little ill. And since this concert instigated all of these shenanigans, I'd be remiss not to tell you about it despite it having nothing to do with motorbikes. We are surrounded by lifelong Journey fans (who were probably there when these songs were new, who watched Steve Perry belt out Don't Stop Believing while they were actually able to smoke joints because silly laws like no indoor smoking didn't make them stick out like sore thumbs). We sit there at this 'rock' concert, appreciating nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia. Wal*Mart is mentioned on stage three times. A young Filipino man bounces around, accurately reproducing Journey songs note for note (the Cinderella story goes that they found him on YouTube). While everyone else sings along, I'm disturbed by the fleeting thought that the age of the rockstar has died. I'm only reassured by the fact that I'm in the middle of a motorcycle adventure and LiveNation doesn't have access to my cool card.
ss It's our last night in Portland and Thor from See See invites me to go to dinner, hang out and catch up. So I met up with him and I share the story of our trip so far while we have hamburgers and beers. Afterwards he invites me to come and meet some of the guys from his club. Being that he had never ridden one before and was hearing all about how I'm having a blast riding it, he's definitely curious about the Goldwing. I happily swap for his Monster 800 on the way to meet up with the other riders. Thor gets on the bike and takes off, expecting, I think, for the Goldwing to be "okay" but still very limited and a lumbering beast of a motorcycle. I trail Thor as he makes a left turn over wet pavement, wacks the throttle open and spins the rear tire. Something clicks in the way he's riding it, and I can tell that now he's thinking: "Hey, this isn't some big, silly toy. This is a fuckin' bike."
ag The Goldwing seems to surprise Thor in many of the same ways it surprised Sean. Thor races and does track days, uses motorcycles as transportation whenever possible, and is in every regard a motorcycle enthusiast. He also participates in the 5-5-5: essentially a cross country motorcycle adventure. Sure it's on pre 1975 bikes that are under 500cc's and cost less than 500 dollars, but at its core it's not that different from this very trip. Get on a motorcycle, ride someplace really far away, live off of the bike. Eschew plans, and deal with reality as it unfolds.
ss This brings me to my biggest gripe about the Goldwing: why don't riders like Thor and I know just how well this motorcycle performs? Thor loves to do the kind of thing that this motorcycle is designed to do. He even does this thing often on other motorbikes. And he knows about the Goldwing. He knows things about its weight, features, cost, engine architecture, who rides them. He knows everything about this bike on paper, but has no idea that this bike is lustworthy for someone like him and I. It's probably hard to make Thor's life more awesome, because it seems like See See is a pretty rad place to be, but here's a motorcycle that just might be able to do such a thing. A Goldwing is just not something he even considers relevant to his life. If the product is good enough, all the marketing has to do is describe accurately, to the right people, what that thing is. If the product sucks you have to be a little bit more creative (A LOT of people bought camo Snuggies....). But the Goldwing doesn't suck. It has the potential for all kinds of stories, and I wish Honda was telling them to an expanded audience.
ag Think about Apple's marketing with the iPad. Did they market it to young people who want to be hip and cool? No. They plastered up giant billboards all around town picturing people who, while not unfashionable, certainly weren't hip. And, while not old, certainly weren't young. These facts weren't blatant, but they were there. That sweater wasn't one you would wear as a 22 year old, but it might be one your mom would wear. And those hands were still pretty, but they belonged to a 45 year old. And those shoes, well, they were anything but trendy. Apple wasn't trying to convince young people to buy iPads because they didn't have to. They convinced young people many years ago to buy iPods, and those loyal customers were sure as hell going to be buying an iPad. Apple had to convince older people to buy iPads. And it worked.
ss So the point is, they can probably stop trying to sell Goldwings to the guys who are already going to buy them. The guys who've been riding all their lives and have a lot of time, a lot of money, and a lifelong dream to head off into their retirement sunset on a Goldwing don't need any prompting. The rest of us would sure like to know about how awesome this motorcycle is. Ride a Goldwing down dark, straight Highway 30 for the long 28 miles between St. Helens and Portland on a cold, wet night, and you're in for an entirely different experience than on any other motorcycle I've ever ridden. Even other touring bikes like FJR 1300, the MotoGuzzi Norge or the Stelvio with a really tall windscreen are not even in the same ballpark. I find myself on a motorcycle, but the cold and the loneliness of being in the dark waiting to get somewhere I am going is gone. I turn the heat on, get rid of the cold, turn up the stereo system, and enjoy listening to some music. I sit behind the big windscreen and watch the GPS like a Grand Theft Auto map in front of me. Sure all these luxuries are nice but, more importantly, as it helps remove those negative parts, the joy of riding a motorcycle comes back. I'm not cold. I don't wish I was there already. And I'm grateful there's still another 1,500 miles to go.
For full Goldwing tour coverage click here.